Living the Questions
As I have thought about these days through which we are all living, the opening lines of Charles Dickens great historical novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” have often come to mind. Set in London and Paris on the eve and during the French Revolution, Dickens begins,
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
It might be said that these words describe the disparities that exist in all times and all places, sometimes more to one side, sometimes than to the other. Even in the most “normal” times, there remain elements of both. Still it seems to me that at this time the weight falls on the second of the two nouns in each set. For countless numbers of people, this is the worst of times, a season of darkness, a winter of despair.
The events that have unfolded since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic certainly provide fertile soil for the asking of questions, questions like, “Why would a loving God allow thousands to suffer and die from COVID-19?” or “Why does a loving God allow any pandemic?” Of course, these are perennial questions, aren’t they? Why does a loving God allow suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Questions, questions, questions. These are important questions and theologians and philosophers have been wrestling with them from time immemorial. The answers given range from being too simplistic to so complex that they are practically useless.
In my almost 70 years, I have had my share of questions. Early on I was taught that questions such as these were “off limits” for truly faithful Christians. One simply did not question God. It demonstrated a lack of faith. To entertain questions such as these would open the door to doubt and doubt would inevitably result in the death of faith.
Through the years, faithful pastors, preachers, and teachers have helped me see that the Bible is full of people who find themselves questioning, even doubting God. They raised the same questions that we find ourselves asking. Think of the great figures of the Old Testament – Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah – they all had their questions and, at times, their doubts. For example, when the Israelites were being oppressed by the Midianites, Gideon has the audacity to ask an angel of the Lord, “If God is with us why has all this happened to us?” (Judges 6:13). The Psalms of Lament (or Complaint) are replete with such questions. The most familiar of these is Psalm 22 which begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There is even a book called “Lamentations.”
We often speak of “Doubting” Thomas but according to Luke 24:11, all of the apostles doubted the women’s report of the resurrection and Matthew reports that when the eleven disciples met the risen Christ on the mountain to which he had directed them “they worshipped him; but some doubted” (Mt. 28:17). Think Paul’s lament over the “thorn” in his flesh (2 Cor. 12).
Interestingly, in John’s account of the Upper Room (John 13-17), Jesus is interrupted six times by his questioning disciples as he tries to deliver his “Farewell Discourse” (John 13:6, 25, 36, 37; 14:5, 22). He is doing and saying things they just don’t understand. Questions, questions, questions! Jesus does not dissuade the disciples from asking questions, from seeking clarity, from seeking greater understanding. Anselm, a monk, theologian, and Archbishop of Canterbury, (1033-1109), coined the phrase “faith seeking understanding” meaning that faith in Jesus Christ prompts a questioning search for deeper understanding. This search requires questions.
This God of ours is not offended by our questions or our doubts. They are certainly not an affront to God. We should never fear to own up to them or verbalize them. After all, the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is unfaithfulness, an unfaithfulness that may result from an unwillingness to question.
The best of times, the worst of time, a time or questions, a time for answers. Questions to be sure, answers maybe not…at least, not yet.
In a letter to a young protege, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote,
I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. You will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Still living the questions!